Happy Bird Father’s Day (Miracle, all of it)

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Excerpts from Jennifer Ackerman‘s: Why Bird Fathers Are Superior:

They are attentive parents, building nests, feeding chicks and even showing their young how to sing.

Tally up the good dads and the bad dads in the animal world, and mammals come up surprisingly short. Males provide direct care of their young in less than 5% of mammal species. Some mammals, like grizzly bears, are notoriously bad dads, known to kill their own cubs…most mammal fathers are deadbeats with a “love ’em and leave ’em” approach, sticking around only to mate.

Then there are birds. For our avian friends, attentive care of the young by both males and females is the norm. True, females shoulder the full parenting load in a few avian families, such as hummingbirds. But in some 90% of bird species, the males stay around to help: They share the duties of nest-building, incubate eggs, feed brooding females and the chicks, even train their young for independent life. Birds, in short, have a system of parenting not unlike our own, despite being separated from us by some 300 million years of evolutionary history…

How could creatures whose brains are so much smaller than ours and so different from them possibly be clever? …In the past two decades or so, we’ve learned that some species of birds have relatively large brains for their body size, just as we do…Birds teach. They learn. They solve problems. They make tools. They count. They remember where they put things. They deceive and cheat. They argue and console.

And they parent—most often together, with an equitable division of labor between nest and “office.” Many birds share incubation duties. Male and female double-crested cormorants swap that role about once an hour, so that the stay-at-home parent gets a chance to forage for itself. Woodpeckers relieve one another during the day, but the male alone incubates at night.

Some male birds go to extraordinary lengths not just to find food for their young but to participate in the actual feeding. The anhinga, or snakebird, which is found in the southern swamplands of the Americas, puts his whole mouth and neck into it, creating a kind of feeding tube to efficiently deliver partially digested fish down the throats of his young. (The chicks are soon shoving their heads down their dad’s beak to speed up the process.)

The Namaqua sandgrouse, which lives in the driest regions of southern Africa, acts as a living flask for his brood: A male bird flies up to 20 miles to find a watering hole in which to soak his belly feathers, absorbing a few tablespoons of water—then flies back to his chicks to let them drink from his feathers… [Read more…]

Man v. Finch? Bet on Finch.

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Jennifer Ackerman provides a masterly survey of research in the last two decades that has produced a revolution in our understanding of bird cognition…Scientists once assumed that difference (in brain size) equalled inferiority, but this has proved to be as false as the notion that brain size is an indicator of brain power. It appears that what counts is neural quality, and the avian equivalent of the cerebral cortex has proved to be as densely packed with neurons as our own…

Species such as the western scrub and the blue jay store away many thousands of seeds during autumn and retrieve their food supply when the winter pickings are slim. In recalling their stores’ whereabouts, the birds have an impressive success rate of over 70%. And even their failures often imply high intelligence, because they result from theft. Jays not only store seed supplies; they also steal from their store-hiding neighbors.  This behavior requires feats of memory but also leads to some astonishing corvine trickery. If a bird is aware it has been observed while burying food, it will often go back and re-hide it elsewhere. A further indication of complicated thought processes is the fact that only scrub jays with experience of stealing show a capacity for these sneaky countermeasures. In short, even among birds, it takes a thief to know a thief.

One of the most fascinating parts of Ms. Ackerman’s survey is her chapter on bird song. The avian counterpart to the human larynx is the syrinx, a double-sided complex of muscle, cartilage and delicate membrane that is probably the most sophisticated producer of sound in all nature. Birds learn their songs at an early stage in their development and then replicate those vocalizations with astonishing millisecond-long discrimination and accuracy. In one study, a Ph.D. student competed with a zebra finch, whose brain weighs less than a gram, and was shown to be vastly inferior to the bird in his ability to reproduce faithfully a single four-“word” sentence. While spectrograms revealed the human words to be hopelessly variable, the finch repeated its song phrases with perfect, machine-like consistency…

– Mark Cocker, Giving Bird Brains a Good Name in his book review of Jennifer Ackerman’s new book: The Genius of Birds.


Notes:

  • Post Inspired: “As the birds know, who fly the continents, the oceans, for their secret reasons, a map of the earth written inside their bodies, marked under their breastbones: a continuance of the now most fragile, always travelled patiently enduring world.” ~ Hilda Morley, “Sea-Map”
  • Read longer excerpt from Lithub: The Genius of Birds
  • Image Source: beatrice lechtanski photography (via Staying Lifted)

 

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